After years of false starts, large-scale solar power is finally coming to North Carolina.
Raleigh-based Progress Energy announced the latest big project Friday, a 1.2-megawatt solar farm on 10 acres in Wilmington, to be built at the same complex as the utility's coal-burning power plants. It will generate enough power for about 800 homes on sunny days.
The Progress Energy solar project will be developed, owned and operated by SunEdison, a national solar developer in Maryland. SunEdison will sell the power it generates to Progress, which will then distribute the electricity to its customers. The project is expected to start generating electricity this year.
SunEdison has announced two other solar projects in the state this year: a 1-megawatt project on the Cary campus of software developer SAS, which will sell power to Progress; and a 14-megawatt solar farm in Davidson County, 60 miles northeast of Charlotte, that will sell power to Duke Energy.
The Davidson County project appears puny compared to the 2,200-megawatt McGuire nuclear plant on Lake Norman, but it's colossal by solar standards: The nation's largest solar project currently is about 14 megawatts, at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
North Carolina, a state where solar energy has never been adopted on a large scale, is suddenly developing three significant solar projects.
“It's about time,” said Stephen Kalland, director of the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University. “The technology has been there for some time.”
The sudden interest in solar in this state is being driven by a 2007 state law requiring power companies to tap renewable resources. The law is expected to elevate North Carolina into a national solar hot spot.
The state will need to develop an estimated 300 megawatts of solar power by 2021 to meet the renewables requirement, Kalland said.
Progress Energy, Duke Energy and municipal power agencies are all reviewing proposals from renewables developers, including solar, wind and biomass resources. And Duke has plans to develop its own statewide solar power network on about 850 sites, primarily rooftops.
Today, North Carolina has less than a half-megawatt of solar power, mostly small rooftop projects on private homes that are subsidized by N.C. GreenPower, a Raleigh nonprofit that has been supporting solar projects since 2004. N.C. GreenPower has 167 solar projects, many of which are so small they don't generate enough power for one home.
The primary impediment to solar development has been the cost of creating silicon wafers, and the rising demand for silicon by the computer chip industry. Solar energy in the past has cost about five times as much as building conventional power plants.
North Carolina, with its regulated utility system, presents another obstacle to solar. Solar developers such as SunEdison are not allowed to sell electricity directly to businesses or homes.
Instead, they can sell only to power companies, which in the past were unwilling to invest in solar energy because it was too expensive.
The benefit of solar is emissions-free electricity, without greenhouse gases or radioactive nuclear waste.
The downside is that solar power operates only about 20 percent of the time, compared with nuclear plants and coal plants that run round-the-clock.